Short Tempers And Mass Confusion: O’care Repeal Is Going Awesome

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Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

An updated version of Senate Republicans’ health care bill will be released Thursday morning, but as of Wednesday afternoon few lawmakers had any idea what that bill would include, or even if one or two versions will be unveiled.

The GOP senators scurried, tight-lipped and irritable, through the subterranean corridors of the Capitol’s basement, harried aides trailing after them, snapping at reporters who peppered them with questions on legislation they still haven’t seen.

“What health care bill?” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked in exasperation as a crowd of reporters hounded the senator—a key swing vote who opposed the first bill’s deep cuts to Medicaid.

“I’m anxious to see it,” sighed Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), another sought-after vote who has raised majors concerns about the impact of repealing Obamacare on her Medicaid-dependent state.

“There are a lot of moving pieces that aren’t certain yet,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told reporters as he left a GOP lunch Wednesday afternoon where senators had hoped to get more information. “It’s a painful process right now.”

Reporters then swarmed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), one of the dissenters who helped tank the first iteration of the bill because he said the process was too rushed, asking if he’d received clarity on what will be in tomorrow’s revised version.

“Uh, no,” he admitted.

After the first bill was pulled in June due to crumbling support, changes were proposed that aimed to bring both moderate Republicans and hardline conservatives on board, such as removing some of the tax cuts on the wealthy and using that money to fund opioid addiction treatment and insurance market stabilization.

The tweaks, however, seem to have accomplished little more than pissing off both camps.

“They’ve made it even worse,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) complained. “This bill is going to leave in place more of the Obamacare taxes. It leaves in place Obamacare’s regulations, and it also adds $70 billion in an insurance bailout superfund.”

Paul said Wednesday he is prepared to vote no on a procedural vote on the bill set for next week. If just two other Republicans bail, the bill is dead in the water.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is pushing an amendment that would further deregulate the insurance market, says he too will vote no if his proposal is not adopted in the base text—meaning he won’t accept the option of voting for his proposal as part of vote-a-rama. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has echoed this threat.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is followed by reporters on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, July 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Capitol Hill, July, 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

But several other lawmakers say their votes are off the table if the Cruz amendment is adopted, raising concerns that it would lower premiums for the young and healthy by making them skyrocket for elderly, disabled, and sick Americans.

In a last ditch attempt to bridge this divide, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) has proposed an amendment to Cruz’s amendment that would tie the cost of the comprehensive plans in each state to the cost of the cheap barebones plans the policy would allow, and would keep a version of Obamacare’s essential health benefits regulation. “The recognition is that certain things should be included in the health care product,” he said.

Rounds admitted Wednesday, however, that he hasn’t yet drafted this proposal or sent it to Cruz. “I’ve offered to, and he’s said, ‘please, send it on up,'” he said. Other Republicans, namely Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), were said to be working on tweaks to the Cruz proposal, but Cruz himself refused to confirm any details of those conversations.

Cruz’s amendment has already been submitted to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring, but the author had no idea if it will be included in the bill unveiled on Thursday.

“I don’t know,” he told reporters. “I hope so, in the underlying bill, but we’ll see.” Cruz then issued a warning that his policy  isn’t included, he and other far-right hardliners will kill the bill entirely.

“The bill will not have the votes to go forward if there are not meaningful protections for consumer freedom that significantly lower premiums,” he said. “It needs to be in the underlying text.”

While some senators floated the idea that two bills would be released Thursday, one with Cruz’s amendment and one without, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) suggested only one “base bill” will be unveiled. “There’s going to be a lot of information released, but I can’t speak to the exact format of it,” he said, ducking through the stately wooden doors to his office to escape a crush of reporters.

Several senators confirmed, meanwhile, that no changes are being made to the first bill’s deep cuts to Medicaid—a demand several moderate senators laid out as necessary to win back their support.

“It’s my understanding that what we have in the original bill has not changed in regard to Medicaid,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) confirmed to TPM on Wednesday.

Murkowksi griped earlier this week that the first bill’s major changes to Medicaid “without process … without working with the other side … is just, I just think fundamentally wrong.”

Asked Wednesday if she had received indications those concerns had been addressed, she said, “Uh … no.”

“But I haven’t asked either,” she added.

Medicaid cuts could be also be a deal-breaker for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

Even Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), usually a reliable vote for leadership, complained Wednesday about the bill’s evisceration of Medicaid. “I’m a Medicaid expansion state. I’m happy with the way it is in Arizona,” he said, noting that his final vote on the bill will depend on the recommendation of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who recently said the bill “falls short.

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) scrambles to hold his fractious caucus together, taking the rare step of delaying the August recess to leave more time for debate and failing so far to win over defectors, his reputation as a Machiavellian dealmaker is taking a serious hit. With President Trump pouring gasoline on the fire with public threats that he will be “very angry” if the Senate is unable to pass the bill, and protesters occupying Republican offices demanding they cease and desist their Obamacare repeal effort, the GOP is in for a miserable summer.

“Not everybody is having a good time,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said, throwing up his hands as he descended the Capitol’s marble staircase.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.
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